Israel ramps up strikes on Gaza as US advises delaying ground offensive to allow talks on captives
RAFAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel ramped up its airstrikes Monday in Gaza, where the death toll is rising rapidly, and the United States advised Israel to delay an expected ground invasion to allow more time to negotiate the release of hostages taken by Hamas militants.
Israel has allowed two small aid convoys but no fuel to enter the besieged coastal enclave, where there has been a power blackout for nearly two weeks. Hospitals say they are scrounging for generator fuel in order to keep operating life-saving medical equipment and incubators for premature babies.
Heavy airstrikes demolished buildings across Gaza, including in areas where Palestinians have been told to seek refuge, killing hundreds and sending new waves of wounded into already packed hospitals, according to Palestinian officials and witnesses. After a strike in Gaza City, a woman with blood on her face wept as she clasped the hand of a dead relative. At least three bodies were sprawled on the street, one lying in a gray stream of water.
The Israeli military released footage showing what it said were attacks on Hamas infrastructure. Flashes of yellow light were followed by an explosion that sent gray smoke and debris shooting upward as multi-story buildings collapsed or toppled over.
Israel said it had struck 320 militant targets throughout Gaza over the last 24 hours in preparation for “a maneuver," an apparent reference to a ground operation. The military says it does not target civilians, and that Palestinian militants have fired over 7,000 rockets at Israel since the start of the war.
Israel is widely expected to launch a ground offensive in Gaza following Hamas’ brutal Oct. 7 rampage into southern Israeli communities. Tanks and troops have been massed at the Gaza border, and Israel says it has stepped up airstrikes in order to reduce the risk to troops in the next stages.
Fears of a widening war have grown as Israeli warplanes have struck targets in the occupied West Bank, Syria and Lebanon in recent days. Israel has frequently traded fire with Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group, which is armed with tens of thousands of rockets.
The U.S. has advised Israeli officials that delaying the expected ground offensive would give Washington more time to work with regional mediators on securing the release of people captured by Hamas during its deadly incursion, according to a U.S. official.
The official, who requested anonymity to discuss the private discussions, said it was unclear how much the argument will “move the needle” on Israeli thinking. Hamas released an American woman and her teenage daughter last week in what it said was a humanitarian gesture mediated by Qatar.
More than 1,400 people in Israel have been killed — mostly civilians slain during the initial Hamas attack. At least 222 people were captured and dragged back to Gaza, including foreigners, the military said Monday, updating a previous figure.
More than 5,000 Palestinians, including some 2,000 minors and around 1,100 women, have been killed, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said Monday. That includes the disputed toll from an explosion at a hospital last week. The toll has climbed more rapidly in recent days, with the ministry reporting 436 additional deaths in just the last 24 hours.
This is the deadliest by far of five wars fought between Israel and Hamas in less than 15 years.
Israel carried out limited ground forays into Gaza, and on Sunday, Hamas said it had destroyed an Israeli tank and two armored bulldozers inside the territory it has ruled since 2007. The Israeli military said a soldier was killed and three others were wounded by an anti-tank missile during a raid inside Gaza.
The military said the raid was part of efforts to rescue hostages abducted in the Oct. 7 attack. Hamas hopes to trade the captives for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
On Saturday, 20 trucks entered Gaza in the first aid shipment into the territory since Israel imposed a complete siege at the start of the war. Israel allowed a second convoy of 15 trucks into Gaza on Sunday. Both entered from Egypt through the Rafah crossing, the only way into Gaza not controlled by Israel.
An airstrike hit a residential building some 200 meters (yards) from the U.N. headquarters in Rafah on Monday, killing and wounding several people, according to an Associated Press reporter at the scene, underscoring the perils of humanitarian operations.
COGAT, the Israeli defense body responsible for Palestinian civilian affairs, said the aid was allowed in at the request of the United States, and included water, food and medical supplies. It said Israel inspected everything before it entered Gaza.
In a Sunday phone call, Netanyahu and U.S. President Joe Biden “affirmed that there will now be continued flow of this critical assistance into Gaza,” the White House said in a statement.
Relief workers said far more aid was needed to address the spiraling humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where half the territory’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes. The U.N. humanitarian agency said the 20 trucks that entered Saturday amounted to 4% of an average day’s imports before the war.
The World Health Organization said seven hospitals in northern Gaza have been forced to shut down due to damage from strikes, lack of power and supplies, or Israeli evacuation orders.
The lack of fuel has also crippled water and sanitation systems. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians sheltering in U.N.-run schools and tent camps are running low on food and are drinking dirty water.
Israel repeated its calls for people to leave northern Gaza, including by dropping leaflets from the air. It estimated 700,000 have already fled. But hundreds of thousands remain. That would raise the risk of mass civilian casualties in any ground offensive.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel “can't go back to the status quo” in which Hamas controls Gaza and is able to threaten it, but that Israel has “absolutely no intent” to govern Gaza itself.
“Something needs to be found that ensures that Hamas can’t do this again, but that also doesn’t revert to Israeli governance of Gaza,” he told NBC's “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “It’s something that needs to be worked even as Israel is dealing with the current threat.”
Israel captured Gaza, along with the West Bank and east Jerusalem, in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians want all three territories for a future state. Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005, but Israel and Egypt have imposed a blockade of varying degrees since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.